Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I spent my time reading a good amount of dystopian science fiction from the previous decades. Some of the most important themes at that time were how big evil corporations (or governments) would grow to a point where they could dominate people’s lives.
One of the corollaries of that was a technology developmental focus on controlling the population, so that people would eventually become just cogs in the machinery that powered the corporation. That’s a quite bleak vision of the world, and it was anchored in a very specific feeling of that period. However, the truth is that today we seem to be sailing towards a society that is starting to approach some of these predictions.
Today we have most people on the streets doing what a machine tells them to do. We have a large number of jobs in the gig economy that are fundamentally defined by the lack of agency and control, like Uber drivers and delivery people. Commuters and drivers follow GPS devices that tell them what to do. Algorithms decide what you are going to be interested in next, like Youtube and Netflix, or in a extreme version of that, how you are going to be feeling. Finally just recall the amount of time you might have spent in our life talking with any company customer service when somehow, somewhere “Computer says No” to some aspect of your life.
It’s not that most of these companies actively set out to pursue this vision, but by serving their customers (at least, the ones paying their bills) well they ended up with solutions that even the most pessimistic author of the 70s could not have dreamed about. The crux of the matter is that none of these companies felt an imperative to avoid these situations--and in some cases, were lured towards them on account of their business models.
We need to start tipping the scales -- to cross the fine line between subservience and tech reliability. But that will only come with the realisation that technology should exist to augment or assist human cognition, and not to override it. There’s a debate around the same subject on the ethics and morals of having self driving autos.
There’s a common trope around technology companies that “tech will set us free”, but I don’t think that this is happening at the pace we would like it to be. That’s why I think we should go further, and start actioning on it. Tech needs to set us free and become a tool that empowers us, not a source of more control.